EASTON — Agricultural scientists are ringing the alarm as saltwater flooding along the Eastern Shore delivers an increasingly acute threat to humanity’s most vital necessities: viable farmlands and clean drinking water.
During a symposium on Friday, Nov. 22, at Anne Arundel Medical Center in Annapolis, researchers, farmers and agriculture technology innovators weighed in on the future of Maryland farming with a mixture of optimism and skepticism.
Assistant Professor of Agricultural Ecology at the University of Maryland Dr. Kate Tully, who spoke during the symposium, said Maryland, particularly Dorchester and Somerset counties, is “probably going to see some of the first climate refugees in the United States” as a result of saltwater intrusion-induced land loss.
“We’ve seen vast residential areas of the Eastern Shore that have already been abandoned,” Tully said. “Even before your property goes under water, if your drinking water well is totally flooded with saltwater and if the county has stopped maintaining your roads, which is happening, it makes it more difficult to get to school or work.”
But it’s not just the future of Maryland Tully’s worried about, it’s the history, she said. Some of the first American farms, which were established when the Europeans came over to the New World in the 1600s, are the “first to go under water,” she said.
“Some of these farmers have been farming the exact same property that has been in their family for generations,” Tully said. “Now, America’s first farmlands are going under water and being affected by saltwater intrusion. We’re losing our history.”
John Swaine, a third-generation farmer at Pleasant Points Farm in Royal Oak, said saltwater flooding is the worst he’s seen in 50 years, and it’s left once-productive portions of his land useless.
While scientists and innovators are brainstorming mitigation tactics, such as manufacturing salt-tolerant crops and installing salt water sensors, Swaine said he’s not convinced his damaged land can be revived or repurposed.
“We’ve got land now that won’t grow anything in these conditions, and I don’t think there’s a solution as far as bringing it back into production,” he said. “The tide will continue to come, and you can’t stop it from coming up in the fields.”
Mike Thielke, executive director of Easton-based innovative technology initiative F3 Tech, agreed with Swaine, but said agriculture industry players in topographically challenging areas shouldn’t admit defeat just yet.
F3 Tech, which stands for farm-fish-food, was created to invite innovation to the agriculture realm, making farming more sustainable, more technology-reliant and more efficient.
Thielke said mitigating the effects of saltwater intrusion is possible and, although he doesn’t yet know how, he said that’s why “we need to start talking about this and come up with some creative ways of adapting.”
His hope, he said, is to the realize “meaningful solutions” to agriculture’s most pressing concerns through technology innovation within the next couple of years.
“(Our inventions) need to not only solve the problem of saltwater intrusion, but also need to be done at a price point that makes sense, that’s affordable and that’s also something farmers are wiling to adapt to,” Thielke said.
F3 Tech also is tackling the effects of saltwater intrusion on groundwater, upon which hundreds of millions of people rely everyday for drinking water and irrigation needs.
In recent years, aquifers, which allow wells to transmit groundwater for drinking, have begun deteriorating under saltwater’s grip, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports.
The world’s need for clean drinking water, as well as for an estimated 30% more food by 2030, “cannot be met by merely cultivating more land, planting more crops per acre, or harvesting existing seafood sources,” F3 Tech wrote on its website.
The company is planning challenge events at colleges and workplaces that will “introduce students, entrepreneurs, and innovators to opportunities available in the sectors of agriculture technology, aquaculture technology, and environmental technology.”
“It is hoped that team presentations will result in the prospect of new technology business startups that could advance through the F3 Tech Pre-Accelerator and F3 Tech Accelerator programs,” the company wrote on its website.
Theilke said, “Part of the mission of F3 Tech is to position Maryland to be a nationally-recognized leader in agriculture tech and aquaculture tech, so as part of that we want to take the lead on this saltwater intrusion issue, which impacts every coastal state in the country, as well as around the world.”
“The solutions we begin to develop here offer tremendous commercial opportunity to entrepreneurs and innovators because they’re solutions that can be implemented throughout the world,” he said.